SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – Students from South Plainfield High School (SPHS) recently spent much of their day in court learning about the dangers of addiction and experiencing, firsthand, how the state’s judiciary is tackling non-violent substance-abuse related offenses. 

Through the Middlesex County Drug Court in Our Schools program, 14 SPHS juniors and seniors visited the Middlesex County Superior Court in New Brunswick on March 26. TAPinto South Plainfield was also invited into the courtroom for the Drug Court proceedings, which were led by Judge Robert J. Jones. 

“We want to let you know the dangers of these drugs in the hope that you will make better decisions down the road,” Jones, a resident of South Plainfield, told the students, noting that last year, over 70,000 people died from drug-related overdoses. “To put that in perspective, there are about 24,000 people in South Plainfield; almost three times as many people across the country die each year than live in the entire town.”

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According to the Middlesex County Superior Court website, defendants with substance abuse problems charged with non-violent crimes, and who have undergone both a legal review and a clinical assessment by a substance-abuse evaluator, are eligible for the program. 

“If someone commits a crime and that crime is related to their drug addiction, they may qualify for Drug Court. Usually, it is lower-level offenses… Drug Court is a program that is an alternative to state prison,” said Jones, adding that the overall goal of Drug Court is to help people ‘conquer their addiction in the hope that it will reduce the chances that they commit another crime.’ 

“The program is very successful in that people who go through it are much less likely to commit crimes compared to those who go to state prison,” said the judge. “The program came about because prison wasn’t working. People with addictions would go into prison, get out still addicted, commit more crimes due to their addiction, and end up back in prison. Drug courts break that cycle and reduce recidivism substantially.” 

Drug Court participants are sentenced to the program for five years but may complete the program early if they excel. During that time, they receive intense supervision and treatment; treatment can be inpatient or outpatient, with outpatient treatment up to three times a week, sometimes more. 

In the first phase of the program, participants are drug tested at least three times a week.  Everyone in the program also has to call in each night for random drug testing. If their number is called, they have to appear for a drug test the next morning.    

Participants also appear before the judge as well as a probation officer once a week. As they progress, reporting becomes less frequent. Additionally, they must also attend at least three sober-support meetings a week (for example, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or a similar program). Participants must also either work full time or go to school and, because a steady job is so important to recovery, they are eligible for job training.    

Program participants who test positive, who fail to attend treatment, or who don’t comply with other program rules are sanctioned. Depending on the infraction, sanctions range from writing an essay to read in court or spending a day sitting in the courtroom to community service or jail time. If these sanctions don’t work, one can be terminated from the program and receive a prison sentence.

During the March 26 Drug Court session, the students had the chance to witness a violation of probation hearing and hear statements from attorneys and probation officers. Several of the more than two-dozen participants who went before Judge Jones were advised to ‘keep up the good work’ with two participants earning certificates acknowledging their success and ‘promotion’ to the next phase of the program. Others, however, were reprimanded for violating the terms of the program, with two participants taken into custody and several others issued sanctions as a result of testing positive for drug or alcohol use, not reporting in, and/or failing to stay out of trouble. 

“We just completed the criminal law unit so this was the perfect time for the students to witness this,” SPHS Government and Law teacher Stephen Balzer told TAPinto, noting that two additional groups of SPHS students visited the Drug Court program this month. “It is important for them to see this stuff is happening in real life. Yes, we read it in the books and did some case studies but [coming here] lets them see how it all plays out in real life.”

“It’s great to see they are being given a chance to make things better,” said SPHS senior Arianna Clark. “This room was filled and I imagine that is what it’s like each and every day and it puts into prospective how many people are really affected by [addiction].”

Fellow senior Becca Bloch added, “I didn't know about Drug Court before and it was really interesting to see that there is an alternative to going to prison. I feel it is beneficial to help them move past all the things they have been through. It was also cool to see those who earned certificates being acknowledged for their success.”

As part of the Middlesex County Drug Court in Our Schools program, three participants shared their personal battles with addiction and how the program has helped them maintain sobriety. 

“Addiction starts with drinking and smoking weed and once you start doing drugs, it is going to lead to other things…Addiction is just so powerful…” Chad K. of Edison said, telling the students that his own battle with addiction began when he was just 13. 

Back then, said Chad, he hung out with older kids, smoked weed, drank, and popped pills. By age 14, Chad had spent six months in an adolescent rehab facility but continued to use, moving on to heroin and other drugs over the years. Prior to enrolling in Drug Court, Chad said he had been in and out of jail 27 times. 

“It was fun until it wasn't fun anymore…” said Chad, adding, “While I am grateful I have the opportunity to turn my life around because I am still young…this was never part of the plan, to be standing here at 24 years old speaking to kids from a high school at Drug Court…I hope something I say sticks with you and makes a difference…”

“Growing up, all I did was get high to hide from my feelings and I spent a lot of time in prison,” William R. of Woodbridge who in June will celebrate three years of being ‘clean and sober,’ said. “Drug Court saved my life.”

“I wasted a lot of time and so many years I wish I can get back…You guys are all still young…Think about what you want to do with your life,” added William, now 39 and a father. “It’s never too late to turn your life around; it’s never too early to focus on yourself and work toward something you really want.”

Paul T. said he turned to first turned to marijuana and alcohol before moving on to ecstasy and other drugs to ‘drown the pain instead of fighting and confronting depression issues.’ “If you have issues, talk to your parents, seek counseling, guidance, but don't use drugs as a solution to solve your emotional issues or other problems you have,” said Paul, explaining that, for him, rock bottom came when he was sent to jail after being caught with six ounces of molly. 

“It really made me reflect on my life and the direction it was going. I didn't want to pursue that lifestyle anymore,” he said, telling the students that the Drug Court program keeps him ‘accountable’ not just to Judge Jones but also to himself.

“I am very thankful for this program because it helps me realize that it doesn't matter where you are —you could live in a mansion, you could live in the projects—drug addiction hits everybody and it hits home,” he said. “I want this for myself. I value my sobriety and I value the fact that I can just walk around and be high off life … I pride myself on that.”

“Chad, William, and Paul have come a long way, and I’m proud of them,” Jones said.  “But the scary thing about addiction is that you never know when a relapse can happen.  We invite school kids from across Middlesex County to our courtroom, hoping that we can show them the dangers that come along with using drugs and alcohol.”

The judge continued, “People start out thinking it’s no big deal—just some partying, but then it gets out of control.  I’ve seen people lose their jobs, houses, families, and friends.  Overdose deaths have skyrocketed. Stronger, deadlier drugs, like fentanyl, are being laced into other drugs, resulting in even more deaths.  We hope that something Chad, William, or Paul said will click, because addiction is hitting every zip code in the state, and prevention is more important than ever.”     

“I believe the program was a success. When debriefing with the students after court, we discussed the importance of making the right decisions and how it will affect the future. The students also enjoyed seeing everything we have discussed in class unfold right in front of them,” Balzer said, adding, “For the students who are looking to go into law or law enforcement, this was a great way to see these careers in action. They were able to ask the prosecutor questions and allow for the judge to explain his role.”

For more information on the New Jersey’s Drug Court program visit www.njcourts.gov/courts/criminal/drug.html.

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